How can I be an ally? How can I let people know I’m really ready to listen?
At the Georgia Association for Women Lawyers’ CLE on women in leadership held today at the State Bar of Georgia, several participants shared their desire to help and to listen. Discussions around #MeToo are bringing out stories suppressed sometimes for decades, stories often peeled back to more layers of race and class. Although there are no easy answers, many agreed on the value of listening. What can we do? One thing is we can listen, actively, to one another’s stories.
Then a question was raised: what if you’re ready to listen but others aren’t sharing? “I do want to listen, I am ready to hear. But sometimes I feel people aren’t willing to speak. Maybe they think I won’t understand, or they put up a defensive barrier. How can I prove I really want to listen?”
Listening is such a gift. But—as someone pointed out from the audience—showing up to listen does not obligate others to share their stories. Receptive body language and an open heart does not guarantee others will reciprocate by speaking. Nor should it. If listening is a gift, it must be given without expectation of repayment.
At a different CLE last summer, through the International Listening Association’s annual convention, I co-presented a CLE on “Better Listening for Better Lawyering.” One of the most popular parts of the CLE, according to the feedback, was discussion of the “Preparing to Listen” checklist. People—especially task-driven, problem-solving, professional people like lawyers—just love checklists. You have a focus, broken down into small parts. You can check off the boxes. If you do everything on that checklist, you’re prepared to listen. Right?
That checklist is great, and many people are failing miserably at doing half the tasks it lists. Atul Gawande popularized checklists as a lifesaving measure in surgical units, citing evidence they work because they catch “the dumb stuff.” In the world of listening, “dumb stuff” means looking at your phone or starting a conversation by telling someone they don’t look like a lawyer—another story shared at the GAWL session today.
But today’s conversation also revealed, yet again, that listening is more than checking off boxes. Avoiding the “dumb stuff” is not quite the path to the authentic, vulnerable speaking and listening.
Panelist Gwendolyn Keyes Fleming offered a response that transcends checklists and neat reciprocal obligations: Readiness to listen means being there. It means finding “small points of common interest” with the people around you. It means putting in the work “day by day.”
Someone chimed in that change comes from individual relationships, not the top down. I’m not sure I agree with giving up on top-down measures. But I agree change won’t happen without the relationships—the kind that are built through small, incremental, meaningful gifts of attention and recognition. And perhaps, when the moment is right, speaking and listening.